A Professor Turns Administrator

June 18, 2003

When you apply for a faculty job, it's all about you. When you apply for an administrative job, it's all about what you can do for others.

It took me a while to realize that.

I spent nine years as a professor in the journalism school at Ohio University before taking my first administrative post, as a special assistant to the president. My work for the president, Robert Glidden, focused on ethics, and together we created a nationally recognized program that seeks to foster personal accountability, trust, and honor. Those values also define effective administrators, and I had decided to become one. There was a snag, however. While I had "executive" experience in the president's office, I did not have "administrative" experience, overseeing budgets and personnel. When I applied for administrative posts, I would instead tout my achievements as a senior professor -- my teaching and writing awards, publications, and other scholarly accomplishments. These were noteworthy enough to secure several interviews, and ultimately, I was a finalist for administrative jobs at such institutions as the University of Oklahoma, Rowan University, and the University of Minnesota at Morris.

I went to those interviews as a professor might, with copies of my research papers and my laptop in tow, showcasing my teaching philosophy and multimedia prowess. I would return from those interviews upbeat about my chances. Professors and students on the campuses would voice strong support. But presidents and provosts would send me rejection letters without really explaining why other candidates were selected over me.

I evaluated the situation, speaking with members of search committees on my own campus about what they were seeking in an administrator. I knew I needed to get some administrative experience, so when a position opened up as associate director of the journalism school at Ohio, I got the job, left the president's office, and took a cut in pay.

To some, my stint as associate director may have seemed like a step down the administrative ladder. But the payoff was worth the pay cut. After two years on the job, I could speak knowledgeably about budgets, personnel, alumni relations, curriculum development, enrollment management, and assessment. This year, when I decided to start applying again for openings as dean or director of a journalism school, I knew that instead of focusing on myself in the interviews, I could focus on being of service to others.

The Application Process

Before sending out applications last fall, I shortened my vita from seven pages to three. I summarized publications, fellowships, scholarly achievements, and teaching awards and inserted specifics about my executive and administrative duties.

I also analyzed the administrative job ads. Ads for professorships are often generic, listing the candidate's desired areas of specialization. But the ads for deans and directorships often indicate the priorities of the school. For instance, the ad for the directorship of the journalism and communication school at Iowa State University noted a long list of expectations for the chosen candidate: "leverage" an $18-million endowment to increase scholarships, improve facilities, and enhance the school's reputation through endowed positions; increase recruitment of minority and international students and faculty members; strengthen scholarship and professional service; and continue aggressive fund raising. By comparison, the ads for directorships at other schools emphasized different priorities -- outreach to professional constituents, for instance, or strategic planning.

I wrote different cover letters for each position. Unlike cover letters for professorships, a letter for one administrative post rarely will suffice for another similar one. Certainly, there may be overlaps concerning fund raising or student engagement. In general, though, in each of my letters, I tried to address every item listed in the job description.

The one element of my job letters that I did not vary was my "vision statement" -- i.e., my management philosophy. Members of search committees usually know colleagues at other institutions and often discuss candidates at conventions or via e-mail messages. If I presented varied visions at different places, my leadership style might be construed as opportunistic.

I described my vision as the "philosophy of contribution." Here's how I defined it: "As a matter of conscience, almost every person wants to make a contribution. It is the director's role to facilitate that, for an employee who is recognized by virtue of his or her contribution will give far more to the institution than anyone anticipates. However, if a director tries to control that contribution, or worse, not acknowledge it, morale suffers and talk turns to 'workload' rather than 'teamwork.'"

I sent out my revised vita, cover letters, and other requested documents, and waited for a telephone call.

The Interview

I received three calls -- from Iowa State, Kent State University, and the University of South Carolina at Columbia (which included me on its shortlist of five finalists, three of whom would be invited for interviews).

Iowa State had started its search a month before the others and was the first to invite me to the campus. The search committee sent several reports to help prepare me for the interview. I compiled these with my own research about its journalism and communication school. I also visited the Web sites of professors and administrators there so that I would recognize them when I met them in person.

During past interviews, I had dealt with students as a professor might, discussing academic rigor and integrity or sharing teaching evaluations and multimedia presentations. This time around, I would discuss internships, scholarships, travel abroad, and other such opportunities, including the creation of a student advisory board, which could allow the school to deal with students as constituents rather than just as advisees.

Administrators deal with people every day. I knew that search committee members would be evaluating me on interpersonal skills, my ability to listen and look them in the eyes, for instance. They would study my demeanor when challenged and otherwise put my vision to the test to discern whether it was myopic or expansive. To come off genuinely, I would have to eliminate distractions.

Nothing can be more distracting than technology when it crashes during presentations or informs you during scheduled breaks that "You Have Mail!" In past interviews I had brought my laptop. This time, I left it at home. I wanted to feel comfortable during public presentations, so I visited the rooms where I would be giving talks and discovered that chairs had been arranged in rows on each side of a laptop projector and screen. Technicians, ready to tackle compatibility issues, seemed relieved when I informed them that I would be delivering talks rather than data. They helped me arrange the chairs in a circle so that each person attending the presentations would be able to see and interact with me.

The presentations went well. Faculty members challenged and invigorated me. Students were enthusiastic, and staff members seemed dedicated and professional. These were people I could work with, learn from, and serve.

The Negotiation

The dean at Iowa State invited me to a second interview. I made no assumptions, realizing that I could undermine the university's interest in me if I approached the negotiation the way that a professor might, focusing on personal salary and research needs, for instance. By now I had done extensive research on its journalism and communication school and could make a good case about resources. I had contemplated such questions as: What do faculty and staff members require to do the type of work expected of them? What type of resources will make them more effective? What case can I make based on fact rather than persuasion?

One such fact was the school's burgeoning undergraduate enrollment. The number of undergraduate majors had risen to 1,011 in 2002, from 682 in 1997. I explained to the dean why additional faculty lines were necessary to achieve national distinction. I came with handouts, noting the size of the full-time faculty at peer institutions.

The dean promised additional lines. I told him that I would want that in writing. He agreed. He did so, I believe, because I was acting in an appropriate manner, putting the interests of others ahead of my own. My approach seemed natural to him. I was reasonable, and so was he. We could work together.

Once the school's needs were met, I focused on my own and returned home to await an official offer. By now it was spring break. Other searches also were drawing to a conclusion. I withdrew from the search at South Carolina. In a conference call, I notified the search committee at Kent State about my pending offer from Iowa State. Since that offer wasn't official yet, Kent State opted to invite me to campus.

Two days before the Kent State interview, the official offer arrived from Iowa State. Happy with the terms, I accepted the offer and dropped out of the Kent State search.

I start July 1. I am in transition, with two sets of colleagues, one that represents the future and the other, the past. I will take that past with me to Ames, for in truth, my Ohio colleagues helped secure my directorship. Sure, they wrote letters of recommendation and fielded telephone calls. But they did something else, too: A colleague taught me the value of mentorship because she was a good mentor to me. A former supervisor taught me good governance because he tried to practice it. A researcher taught me method, a teacher taught me assessment, and an office manager taught me tact.

They transformed me from professor to administrator, putting the onus on service and stewardship. With any luck, I will pass on their legacy to my new school.

Michael J. Bugeja is the incoming director of the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State University.